Williams, William Carlos Entries

Last Nights of Paris


Hm, a ten-day blogging break: how did that happen? Actually I've been working on this post for about four days now, and I'm still not satisfied with it. (A sure sign I'm reading Virginia Woolf again is that I'm never satisfied with my own writing.) Still, it's time to cut the cord. Half-baked thoughts on Last Nights of Paris, for your amusement:


In the interests of ramping up the Parisian reading prior to the France trip, I picked up Philippe Soupault's 1928 Last Nights of Paris, as translated by American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams. I wanted to soak up a bit of surrealist love for the City of Light, and indeed, Soupault's work is a kind of proto-noir love letter to nocturnal Paris, in which various shady characters roam the banks of Seine between sundown and dawn, interacting in mysterious ways and becoming fascinated and disenchanted with one another. The city itself is the most vivid character here; the humans are merely atmospheric outgrowths of the Parisian streets, "types" of the romanticized thief or prostitute. One can trace the precise paths they take while roaming from the railings of the Louvre to the skeletal shadow of the Petit Palais, to to the unsavory ambiance of the Gare St. Lazare in the early hours, but beyond a stylish silhouette they hardly exist as people—or, if they have distinguishing characteristics, they come off more as accessories to the city itself, parts of a collective hive rather than individuals.

Soupault's atmospheric creation comes off well in its first half, which is intensely visual. One is constantly reminded that this work is part of the original Surrealist movement. Not only does the world of the novella qualify as "surreal" to modern sensibilities (featuring unexpected juxtapositions, jarring metaphors and non sequiturs), but even Soupault's specific images recall those of his influences and contemporaries. The opening chapter, for example, features a plethora of umbrellas, bringing to mind Lautréamont's "chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella" line. (Unsurprising, since Soupault apparently idolized Lautréamont, holding him up as a role model for the Surrealist movement as a whole.) Some of the umbrella images are quite good, and good examples of the classic surrealist vibe of Last Nights of Paris:

It is said that along one side of it is the meeting place of monastic bachelors. A modest and silent club. Here umbrellas take on the appearance of a flock.

And again:

Dragging an umbrella as one drags along an unhappy cur, a couple passed on the quay and stopped an instant to cast a look around. The woman let out little shrieks that recalled those of a screech owl. They checked their umbrella on the steps of the Pont des Arts.

The metaphorical transformation of umbrellas into animate creatures—dogs, groups of birds—is very characteristic of Last Nights of Paris. The boundaries between animate and inanimate are unclear: Paris itself comes off as a living, breathing entity, and everything else, whether street or human, is something like an organ to its organic body. Likewise, the woman in the second quote reminds the narrator of a screech owl: human/animal boundaries are just as fuzzy as the borderline between animate and inanimate. Indeed, the narrator is more or less guided around the city during the first chapter by a stray dog, with mongrels appearing over and over throughout the novella. Soupault is not suggesting that these dogs have human-style intelligence, or some kind of mystic knowledge—only that conscious decisions are of less importance, in nocturnal Paris, than the vagaries of chance. The most fitting thing, given the spirit of the nocturnal city, is to abandon oneself to the random chance, investigating odd details that catch one's eye or simply drifting from encounter to encounter with no conscious goal. And even if one has a conscious goal, like the narrator's desire to know the explanation of the events he witnesses during the first chapter, one is most likely to find the answers through a kind of zen abandonment to accident, than through applied logic. As the narrator remarks in the latter half of the book (which is less visual, more conceptual, and I thought generally weaker):

The days when we follow the secret voice of diversion are those chosen by chance to show us its ways. [...] Boredom with the eternal pageant turned my thoughts to what you will. I fled voluptuously.

This preoccupation with chance and night time leads nicely into another of Soupault's trademark Surrealist touches. Scattered more widely throughout the novella as a whole are clocks: looming and ticking, often becoming loci of fascination for different characters, or malfunctioning in one way or another. The narrator notices, in one section, that his watch has developed an odd habit:

And meanwhile, as if in answer to the city's signal, the small clock I used to measure time and ennui stopped each evening at eleven thirty-five. There was no explanation for this disconcerting regularity.

I love the koan-style nonsensical-ness of this. For how long does the clock stop every evening; when does it start up again? Does the narrator reset it to make up for the time lost during the period when it was stopped, or does the ostensibly precise stopping time shift slightly every day as the clock's lost time interferes with its accuracy? Perhaps Soupault is suggesting that the measurement of time—and even more so, one might assume, the measurement of ennui—is a more subjective process than commonly believed, so that the lost time does not need to be taken into account, and whenever the watch displays 11:35pm, 11:35pm it will be as far as the narrator is concerned. This image of the elusive, adaptive clock anticipates Dalí's famous Persistence of Memory (1931), with its melting, traveling clock faces:


Elsewhere in Last Nights of Paris clocks are both reminders of the relativity of time (they are often unsynchronized, or malfunctioning), and simultaneously powerful creators of a moment in time. The character Octave is always staring at clocks, comparing them to his watch and to each other—presumably to check their agreement, reminding the reader of each timepiece's potential inaccuracy. In the opening chapter the "great clock of the Gare d'Orsay, the one on the left, pointed to three, strangest hour of all[, ...] three o'clock, the hour of indecision." Here the clock seems to embody and almost create the sense of this witching-hour in the narrator. The hands and face are less a neutral measurement device of an external quantity (time), but the co-creationist of a specific ambiance known as "three o clock." Could this 3am scene in the Gare d'Orsay achieve the same level of strangeness without the giant clock presiding over it? I think not. Elsewhere, the narrator himself becomes unreliable when he claims to know, without being told, that his friend Jacques "was obsessed with thoughts of a gigantic clock," and, finally, late in the book, chance itself is identified as "the hands of time."

I like Soupault's games here, but I'm not sure what to do with them. And in fact, after my delight at the visual oddity and atmospheric repetitions of the first half of this novella, I was taken aback to find myself slogging through the second half, which often reads like the journal of a stoned high school student or the more sophomoric passages of Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch. Still, at only 180 pages, 90 of which are delicious fun, and given the interesting geographical and historical context, Last Nights of Paris was definitely worth a read. And it will certainly flavor my impressions should I find myself in the neighborhood of the Louvre or Petit Palais after dark.

Thanks to blog buddy EL Fay for turning me on to Soupault! Even if I didn't love Last Nights of Paris quite as much as you did, that first 90 pages make it more than worthwhile.

In the American Grain


William Carlos Williams's essay collection—or long prose poem—or piece of imaginative nonfiction—call it what you will, In the American Grain attempts to inhabit some of the great personalities of American history, in a bid to explore the underpinnings of the collective American psyche. Williams approaches his subjects, who range from Viking cast-out Eric the Red, through Columbus and Daniel Boone and finishing up with a brief sketch of Abraham Lincoln, from a variety of angles, including quotations from primary sources, real or imaginary debates between contemporary (1920s) speakers, fictionalized monologues in the style of the subject's time and place, and poetic dissertations on the ongoing demons of our New World society.

I know a common opinion is that the "point" of a "review" is to give an impression of whether one liked a book or not. So I'll be up front about this: I'm really not sure whether I hated In the American Grain, or whether I quite liked it. I spent most of the duration of the book arguing with Williams, either spluttering with pen in hand, or grudgingly admitting his points—sometimes even cheering him on. The time I wasn't spending thus, I was appreciating the stylistic breadth of the book, and by extension, of American history and literature. All in all, there could be worse ways to spend a reading interlude than locked in debate with an opponent like Williams.

First, the things that I wholeheartedly enjoyed about the book: as noted, Williams makes use of many primary sources throughout In the American Grain, and incorporates them in different ways: sometimes he quotes directly from them; at others, he refers to them in supposed conversation, in yet other cases, he adopts the "voice" of the ship's log, religious treatise, diary, or autobiography in question and uses it in his own monologue on a subject. In a move reminiscent of The Waste Land, there is no clear marker to let the reader know when Williams is quoting verbatim and when he is mimicking a historical voice, so I'm not sure where I should congratulate him on good collage-work, where on good composition, and to what extent the division between those two doesn't even matter. Whether Williams's role is primarily that of a composer or an editor, though, the end result is a chewy combination of prose styles that captures the changing texture of American letters through the centuries. Some of my favorite bits from this milieu, just to give a sense of the variety here:

The opening sentences of the book, in the voice of Eric the Red:

Better the ice than their way: to take what is mine by single strength, theirs by the crookedness of their law. But they have marked me—even to myself.

From the chapter on Sir Walter Raleigh:

O Muse, in that still pasture where you dwell amid the hardly noticed sounds of water falling and the little cries of crickets and small birds, sing of Virginia floating off: the broken chips of Raleigh: the Queen is dead.

O Virginia! who will gather you again as Raleigh had you gathered?

From Cotton Mather's monologue:

The New Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's Territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus, That He should have the Utmost parts of the earth for his Possession.

I am very drawn to stylistic experimentation, and I admire Williams's project here. He's trying to establish the history of American speech, American thought, as distinct from that of Europe. In one of the conversational sections, he claims that Americans don't realize

that there is a source in AMERICA for everything we think or do; that morals affect the food and food the bone, and that, in fine we have no conception at all of what is meant by moral, since we recognize no ground our own. [...] And that we have no defense, lacking intelligent investigation of the changes worked upon the early comers here, to the New World, the books, the records..."

By examining, even inhabiting those same books and records, Williams hopes to provide himself and his readers with a sense of the very historical ground they are already unknowingly occupying.

But the focus on books and records also creates a methodological problem for Williams, or at least exaggerate one to which he is already prone. Because who, in pre-Revolutionary America, LEFT books and records? Why, it was the the educated white men (and a few educated white women, with whom Williams does not concern himself). Williams's emphasis on primary sources means that he privileges those who operated in a mode of writing down their experiences—which means that, for example, as much as he attempts sympathy for the American Indian, his take on the Native presence in the New World is woefully ethnocentric and romanticized—in a way that's, ironically, very Rousseau-esque, very European. Similarly, his attitude toward women and the feminine is bizarrely male-centric, especially considering that he's happy enough to name-drop such contemporary American female artists as H.D., Bryher, and Gertrude Stein when he mentions his six-week trip to Paris. Normally I'm pretty good at considering an author's work in the context of his time, but for some reason, possibly because Williams's big goal here is to advance a particular view of American history, I was roused to ardent disagreement with him. It was passages like this, on Daniel Boone:

There must be a new wedding. But he saw and only he saw the prototype of it all, the native savage. To Boone the Indian was his greatest master. Not for himself surely to be an Indian, though they eagerly sought to adopt him into their tribes, but the reverse: to be himself in a new world, Indianlike. If the land were to be possessed it must be as the Indian possessed it. Boone saw the truth of the Red Man, not an aberrant type, treacherous and anti-white to be feared and exterminated, but as a natural expression of the place...

or this:

The land! don't you feel it? Doesn't it make you want to go out and lift dead Indians tenderly from their graves, to steal from them—as if it must be clinging even to their corpses—some authenticity...


So much about these passages rub me the wrong way. I know it's only fair to look at Williams in context; the 1920s was a pretty bleak time for Native American/white relations. Still a decade away from the relatively enlightened tenure of John Collier as head of the Office of Indian Affairs, the United States Government was busy convincing the American public that the Indians were morally corrupt heathens who should be deprived of their remaining land and have their liquid property "put into trust"—aka stolen. The counter-argument advanced by well-meaning liberals was that the Indians, once a mass of noble savages, were now on the verge of an inevitable extinction (Williams says that "almost nothing remains of the great American New World but a memory of the Indian"), and that, instead of killing off the remnants of them for sport like the frontiersmen were doing in the West, white folks should look to the romantic past for lessons to be learned from this bygone race of "natural," "primitive" people. (Yet if the Abenaki disappeared before 1922, why do they currently have a website?) Indians became the desirable "other" in the progressive imagination, everything white men were not: natural, authentic, in harmony with their surroundings, untouched by cultural repression. Because Williams hates the Puritans, because he hates their refusal to "touch," their fear of contamination, their sexual frigidity, their artifice, he imagines a homogeneous mass of Indian civilization to which none of these things apply. It is easier to imagine these things, of course, if one never has to come into contact with an actual Indian, who might, being human, have her own complex set of hangups and cultural standards.

And so Williams himself becomes an example of the Puritanical refusal to reach out and touch the "other." He romanticizes, most of all, white men who have been close to the Indians: the priest Rasles, who lived with the Abenaki, Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone; Texas governor Samuel Houston, who "descended" to live with the Chippewa until his "reascension" into white society. But no Indian subjectivity is on offer here, no Indian biography told. "They" are not "us"; they are not the story of America. Williams does not attempt to inhabit Metacom, Tecumseh, or even Moctezuma in the same way he inhabits Columbus or Franklin, just as he never attempts to voice a woman for longer than two sentences. He idolizes white male individuals who are able to live among the natives, who have opinions about them, who have sex with them, and thinks it the most noble thing imaginable when white individuals refrain from killing native ones. But he very seldom presents a native person as an individual: the only times he does (Moctezuma and Jacataqua) they're either submitting to white authority or freeing a white man from the sexual prudery of Puritanical white women. And let's not get started on the fact that his primary problem with the Puritanical repression of white women is that they're no longer able sexually to satisfy white men. Or actually, let's.

Women—givers (but they have been, as reservoirs, empty) perhaps they are being filled now. Hard to deal with in business, more conservative, closer to earth—the only earth. They are our cattle, cattle of the spirit—not yet come in. None yet has raised benevolence to distinction. Not one to "wield her beauty as a scepter." It is a brilliant opportunity.

Watch me run to cash in on this "brilliant opportunity" to be a "cow of the spirit."

I mean, I'm no fan of the Puritans' sexual mores and white supremacist doctrines, don't get me wrong. And Williams's sentimental belief in the noble savage is certainly preferable to the opinion that all Indians should be killed as soon as possible, or that decent women should be devoid of sexuality. But the way he uses the Indians and women (and later, "all the negroes [he] has known intimately") as a crow-bar between himself and the Puritan ideology is extremely problematic to me. The frustrating thing, and one reason I have a hard time forgiving him these faults, is that he seems smarter than that, too smart and too cosmopolitan to fall victim to these predictable traps. He knows Stein; he knows Joyce; he knows Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier and H.D. He occasionally dances so close to acknowledging the subjectivity of women and people of color, and yet he always steps back from the brink. In the "Jacataqua" section, for example, in the midst of passages like the one quoted above, he says this:

She is a low thing (they tell her), she is made to feel that she is vicious, evil—It really doesn't do anything save alter the color of her deed, make it unprofitable, it scrapes off the bloom of the gift—it is puritanical envy. When she gives, it will probably be to the butcher boy—since she has been an apt pupil and believes that she is evil, believes even that her pleasure is evil.

For just a moment there, we see a human being convinced of her own malignancy, worn down by a sexual double-standard. But Williams then quickly springs back to his main concern, lamenting the effects of American white female frigidity on white American men. And white EDUCATED men at that, given his contempt for the butcher boy, which is a little ironic considering how many more people got educated in early America than in England due to those pesky Puritans and their mandated free public schools. Basically, his attitude reads, "It makes me so ANGRY that white American women are so frigid and can't sexually satisfy white American men!! The poor white American men are going CRAZY for lack of sexual satisfaction! (And incidentally, I guess it sucks that white American women have been taught that they're dirty whores, but mostly) it's just tragic that lack of sexual generosity is keeping white American men from realizing their true potential!" The destructive effects of Puritanism on the human psyches of the women in question (terrorism), or on the native peoples (genocide) is never as important to Williams as the inconvenience to white American men.

I know it's unrealistic to apply modern political mores to works from the past, but other folks in the 1920s were doing so much better than this. Hell, for my money Longfellow did better than this all the way back in 1855 with the "Song of Hiawatha." And that's disappointing in a book that promises so much in its style and its premise.


In the American Grain was our August pick for the Non-Structured Book Group; join us in September for Tómas Eloy Martinez's Santa Evita.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography